Inauguration Casts President Portraits In New Light As crowds of onlookers watch Barack Obama's inauguration from the National Mall on Tuesday, five iconic portraits of America's first presidents will hang quietly in the National Gallery of Art, just down the street from the swearing in.
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Inauguration Casts President Portraits In New Light

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Inauguration Casts President Portraits In New Light

Inauguration Casts President Portraits In New Light

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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

Some of the multitude of visitors in Washington D.C. for the inauguration may find their way to the National Gallery of Art. There they'll find a number of iconic presidential portraits painted in the early 1800s by artist Gilbert Stuart. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY: Five men gaze gravely from the gallery's gray walls: Monroe, Madison, Jefferson, Adams and George Washington.

FRANK KELLY: Sometimes it's hard to look at an image that is so familiar because you just go, it's Washington, I know exactly who it is. I've seen it hundreds of times.

ULABY: Curator Frank Kelly says Gilbert Stuart painted the picture of Washington that's on the dollar bill. To look at these portraits, Kelly says is to know each president was watching Stuart while he moved his brush.

KELLY: And realize you're looking at images that were created by someone who, of course, knew these people when they were alive. Knew what they looked like.

ULABY: And shape the way we see them. Kelly points to Stuart's affectionate portrait of John Adams.

KELLY: There's a wonderful highlight of white - of light striking on his nose and then this great, gentle aura of light playing across his mostly bald head.

ULABY: These presidential portraits don't telegraph their subject's importance. They're just five old fellows framed from chest to head.

KELLY: And in a sense, they're very democratic in that way. There's nothing of the traditional sort of trappings of what was called, the grand manner of portraiture that says, this is an important person.

ULABY: And so, Stuart help start another tradition. Showing the president that relatively use, you left with a sense of presence and personality, says visitor Brad Alldredge.

BRAD ALLDREDGE: And he got makes George Washington look very old. His skin, it looks fragile and wrinkled and old, and they all look they've had hard - hard experiences.

ULABY: War and nation building take a visible toll. But visitor Patricia Andrews sees vitality in Thomas Jefferson.

PATRICIA ANDREWS: He seems to have high color and be in good health, and good experience which is the way I hope everyone will be on January 20th.

ULABY: Andrews, a former Hawaii resident, looks forward to how Barack Obama might be painted as president.

ANDREWS: I guess I'd like to see him in Hawaii. I guess with a hair like that, my sort of (unintelligible) in him, there in his Hawaiian bathing trunks.

ULABY: This president is different says senior curator Frank Kelly. He says he hopes visitors who chance upon the Gilbert Stuart portraits might take a moment for reflection.

KELLY: How much has changed, you know, how much has changed since then and now as we get ready for the inauguration, there'll be you know, wonderful things and people coming from all over, I look at these men and think, boy, they were really carving out of raw material, something remarkable.

ULABY: And as visitors leave the National Gallery and survey the Capitol of the United States, the monuments and the White House, maybe they'll look at them with new eyes. Neda Ulaby, NPR News Washington.

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